April 25, 2012

Happiness Ascendant

An excerpt on happiness from Jerome Kagan's new book, Psychology's Ghosts as reviewed by Carol Tavris

In his second essay, "Happiness Ascendant," Mr. Kagan virtually demolishes the popular academic effort to measure "subjective well-being," let alone to measure and compare the level of happiness of entire nations. No psychologist, he observes, would accept as reliable your own answer to the question: "How good is your memory?" Whether your answer is "great" or "terrible," you have no way of knowing whether your memory of your memories is accurate. But psychologists, Mr. Kagan argues, are willing to accept people's answer to how happy they are as if it "is an accurate measure of a psychological state whose definition remains fuzzy."

Many people will tell you that having many friends, a fortune or freedom is essential to happiness, but Mr. Kagan believes they are wrong. "A fundamental requirement for feelings of serenity and satisfaction," Mr. Kagan says, is "commitment to a few unquestioned ethical beliefs" and the confidence that one lives in a community and country that promote justice and fair play. "Even four-year-olds have a tantrum," he notes, "if a parent violates their sense of fairness." His diagnosis of the "storm of hostility" felt by Americans on the right and left, and the depression and anomie among so many young people, is that this essential requirement has been frustrated by the bleak events of the past decades. War, corruption, the housing bubble and the financial crisis, not to mention the fact that so many of those responsible have not been held unaccountable, have eroded optimism, pride and the fundamental need to believe the world is fair.
Posted by Jill Fallon at April 25, 2012 9:19 PM | Permalink